Sadly, pork chops don't grow on trees. While China is close to self-sufficiency in meat production, it is far from it in terms of the feed grains, principally soy, that raise the livestock destined for Chinese dinner tables. One of the world's largest soy producers until 1996, China has seen production levels languish over the last 15 years while domestic consumption has grown to five times the amount that Chinese farmers can supply. Foreign soybeans are now ubiquitous in the Chinese agricultural value chain.
Today, China increasingly looks like it is following the examples of Japan and Taiwan, two Asian nations that became food importers as growing cities took land away from agricultural use, rising incomes allowed consumers to enjoy more diverse diets, and urbanization pulled people from farms and rural life.
These trends will have important global implications. Take rice, for example. Although Chinese rice yields rose dramatically in the 20th century, China found it necessary to import 2.6 million tons of rice in 2012. With the global market accustomed to a weak Chinese buying presence -- the country has been a net exporter of rice almost without fail for the last half-century -- China's rice purchases may have helped send global prices to a near all-time high.
It seems too early to say that China's domestic rice production has hit the same supply-side bottlenecks that have required the country to become a huge soy importer. But the recent discovery of cadmium-tainted rice produced in central China -- only the latest in a series of food scandals -- certainly does not help alleviate pressures. Anxious Chinese consumers could opt out of the domestic rice market and demand to buy the staple of their diet in the global market, further eroding China's self-sufficiency.
Another revolution in agricultural technology could mitigate these scarcities; however, this is very unlikely in the near term. The fruits of the Green Revolution, from which China benefited tremendously a generation ago, seem exhausted -- not only in China, but globally. As economist Tyler Cowen noted in his 2012 book, U.S. farming productivity growth leveled off between 1990 and 2002. A similar dynamic may be at play in China, where burgeoning imports suggest agricultural productivity growth is stagnating.
All these factors point to a harrowing decade ahead for Chinese food security. Just as the last three decades of catch-up economic growth created a wealthy middle class in China, the next decade could see catch-up consumption growth from hundreds of millions of Chinese who do not yet eat meat daily. The Chinese government is experimenting with rural land reforms and industrial farming to encourage higher efficiency and promote economies of scale. But between ideological opposition to allowing rural land to function as a form of productive capital and pragmatic concerns over the livelihoods of landless rural peasants, progress will likely be too slow to prevent Chinese food demand from outstripping supply.
China will likely become a reluctant and ever-larger presence in global food markets. This will benefit economies like the United States that are major food exporters. But just as China's industrial and property booms of the last decade buoyed prices of oil, coal, and iron ore, in this decade Chinese food demand growth could raise food prices in the United States and elsewhere. China already consumes 60 percent of the rest of the world's soybean exports. And as it keeps growing, China could fundamentally alter global food supply and demand.
Of course, Beijing does not make policy for the countries from which it imports agricultural products, but as Amazonian rain forests are cleared for soybean production or if global rice prices spike again, China could see a backlash. Chinese policymakers are certainly concerned about the impact of their country's food demand on the rest of the world, which is one reason they insist on grain self-sufficiency. The less China buys on the market, the less it will be in the international spotlight.
Toeing such a line will be difficult. China's unmatched combination of scale and need means it cannot be an anonymous participant in global markets. The China price that today describes the country's cheap manufactured exports could soon refer to higher-priced food on dinner tables across America.